• Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press. September 2007.

Books on atheism have been selling like—well, like spiritual self-help books. The unexpected publishing success of Dawkins and Dennett, Hitchens and Harris has left some of us, at least on the more religious side of the Atlantic, fantasizing that we might be at the dawn of a secular New Age. Suddenly it no longer seems the most natural thing in the world that public figures should be compelled to flaunt their faith on pain of political suicide or that matters of war and peace should be routinely referred to the putative wishes of supreme beings armed with super powers. Cracks have appeared in the mandatory public piousness. One can perhaps glimpse a day, not too far from now, when we will wonder how we ever came to play by the rules of that game.

For the moment, however, the game goes on. And there are reasons, of course, for not simply demanding a halt to it. As reviewers have very properly noted, the faithful lend their time and energy to some laudable causes, and they tend to be disproportionately poor and socially marginal. Respect for the person may not entail respect for the ideas the person holds, yet in practice the two are hard to disentangle, and there is a more or less well-founded fear of the political consequences of respect withheld. In the US, the perceived importance of so-called “values” voters in the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 plunged the secular left into a crisis of self-scrutiny. (Demands for accommodation with Christian fundamentalism were thankfully more muted in 2008.)

At the global scale, the immense Islamophobia of recent years has set political compasses spinning wildly. One can no longer talk about the potential respectability of godlessness without also stressing the special vulnerability of non-Western immigrants who bring their religions to the Christian or secular West and the undistinguished record of Western societies in making such people feel welcome. In delicate situations like these, the New Atheism’s chronic tone deafness can be embarrassing, or worse. In the academy, emphasis tends to fall on the West’s compulsion to propagate precisely that primal violence that Western secularists blame on religion. Thus secularism has fallen into discredit among the very people who had been its most enthusiastic defenders. The era when an anti-clerical left confronted a pious right appears to be over. It makes less sense to say our age is secular than to say it is confused. With Martin Amis championing secularism from what seems to be the right and Terry Eagleton making the case for faith from what must surely be the left, it is anything but obvious where enlightened common sense is now to be found.

In this context, the version of common sense offered by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is worth taking a second look at. A world-class philosopher, a practicing Catholic, and a very good citizen—he recently headed Canada’s portentously-named Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—Taylor came to the attention of the larger world in 2007 when he won the £1,000,000 Templeton Prize, which rewards “progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the divine” (previous winners include Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nixon Special Counsel Charles Colson). A decade earlier he had argued that secularism is indispensable to a healthy liberal democracy. This position was criticized by anthropologist Talal Asad as a deeply misguided glorification of the modern state. Now Taylor has joined Asad as a central figure in a wave of so-called “post-secular” thinking that is highly skeptical, to say the least, of democracy, liberalism, and the state, as well as of secularism. In A Secular Age, Taylor looks at secularism with the freshness and amazement that the New Atheists bring to God. What is this thing? What makes it work? How could anything so strange ever have come into existence in the first place? How could it have gotten so many people to take it seriously?

Taylor’s answers take some time to develop, and not everyone will make it through all eight hundred-plus pages, but the outline is clear enough. Secularism’s rise is generally presented as what Taylor calls a “subtraction” story. Religion is said to shrink as science, technology, and rationality expand. Thus superstition is little by little expelled from the world. In Taylor’s counter-story, secularism is not the widening zone of clarity that remains as myth and error are dissipated, but rather the product of shifts in thinking within religion, and in particular within Christianity. (Taylor spends little time on non-European religions, or for that matter on non-European versions of secularism. The very existence of the latter, if demonstrated, would be a significant challenge to his argument.) It was in the medieval period, Taylor argues, that the supernatural was first divided off from the natural, thus preparing the later moment when “an enchanted world, full of spirits and forces” would become almost incomprehensible to most people. Ironically, the cause of this early disenchantment was not proto-scientific rationality but a more conscious and zealous dedication to God. Taylor’s account of the Reformation stresses the same irony: “So we disenchant the world; we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion. They are not only useless, but blasphemous, because they are arrogating power to us, and hence ‘plucking’ it away from ‘the glory of God’s righteousness.’ This also means that intercession of saints is of no effect. In face of the world of spirits and powers, this gives us great freedom.”

For Taylor, the modern concept of freedom is Christian at its origin and to an important if unspecified degree it remains Christian. Modern individualism similarly retains the imprint of a “Christian, or Christian-Stoic, attempt to remake society.” Several hundred pages later, Taylor shows how “the Victorian Christianity of self-discipline created a space for the move to a humanism of duty, will, and altruism.” And what is true of humanism is also true of post- or anti-humanism. Many of us now look out upon a vast, indifferent universe whose order, such as it is, seems to have nothing to do with the hopes and fears of our self-important little species. But we have arrived here, Taylor proposes, not only because our ancestors abandoned “the immediate encounter with spirits and forces,” but because they did so in favor of a “much more powerful sense of God’s ordering will.”

This story should remind readers of Max Weber. Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” narrative, which Taylor takes over and extends, traced the iron cage of capitalist rationality back to tendencies within the Protestant Reformation. (Taylor, like Hans Blumenberg, traces it still farther back, to the Catholic theology of the Middle Ages.) Readers will also be reminded of recent critiques of the French head scarf ban, which claim that laïcité is not in fact neutral but rather a mask for Christianity, one religion lording it over other religions by pretending not to be a religion at all. What immediately distinguishes Taylor is that he writes as a defender of Christianity. This means, among other things, that he remains fascinatingly up in the air about the actual fate of Christianity in the modern age and how he feels about that fate.

At its saddest, at least for him, Taylor’s tale follows Weber in presenting Christianity as a kind of vanishing mediator. Though Taylor wants it to count as a form of enchantment, he sees Christianity as responsible for leading us all the way from enchantment to disenchantment, an endpoint that is, or that he fears will be, its vanishing point. When any given religion becomes merely one option among many, as is the case in a secular age, no religion can remain what it was. Taylor calls this secular terminus the “immanent frame” (a phrase that has become the title of a spirited discussion, largely sympathetic to Taylor, on the website of the Social Science Research Council). The immanent frame is “a ‘natural,’ or ‘this-worldly’ order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent,'” and that therefore discourages the choice of supernatural or transcendent explanations. “This is something we all share,” Taylor says. He does not exempt himself or other believers from it.

The generosity of this final concession, so dramatically at odds with where Taylor wants the narrative to go, exposes something unsettled at his story’s heart. For if he tells us that we are now blocked off from the supernatural and the transcendent, he also plays with the notion that try as we might, we have in fact never left the supernatural and the transcendent behind—a happier vision, for him, if not necessarily for the rest of us. In other words, the book seems drawn toward two nearly antithetical alternatives. On the one hand, it suggests that secularism’s triumph over Christianity marks an unquestionable rupture. That triumph, embodied in the immanent frame, now makes religious belief in the old sense very difficult. On this reading, the disenchantment of the world is an unhappy if not quite an irreversible historical fact. On the other hand, A Secular Age also presents secularism as a disguised form of Christianity, hiding theological content behind apparently secular concepts. On this reading, the disenchantment of the world never really happened. Or one might say it was more like a translation, with everything depending on the translation’s faithfulness, so to speak—how much of Christianity was lost and how much was preserved in the process of secularization. Taylor acknowledges neither the irresolution produced by the latter reading nor the difference between the first line of interpretation and the second. He simply vacillates between them. His vacillation means that he is more affirmative toward secularism than might be expected from a champion of Christianity. And it means he is more ambivalent toward Christianity. He sometimes describes secularism as an “achievement,” and he sometimes seems to blame Christianity for wiping the old pagan world clean of spirits and demons.

One of Taylor’s impulses, then, is to level the playing field between secularism and religion. This involves both invoking history and flattening it out. In giving Christianity credit for producing secularism from within itself, Taylor insists that secularism is not just the absence of error, hence timelessly true. Sounding unrepentantly Hegelian (he is the author of a monumental reading of Hegel), he suggests that the standard of truth does not apply to entities which are subject to history. As a historical extension of the religious project, secularism offers a particular set of answers to the unavoidable question of how to live a good life. Reprising the old communitarian objection to liberalism (liberalism is unlivable because abstract, empty of value), Taylor assumes that some answer must be given, even though no answer can ever be firmly grounded or incontestable. Since we’re not given enough to go on, he writes, “going one way or the other requires what is often called a ‘leap of faith.'” All answers to such questions are equally groundless—there is no difference between being “for” something and “believing in” something. Religious belief gets an epistemological pass, therefore, and secularism has to surrender its sense of superiority, becoming the same kind of thing as what it defines itself against. This might be thought of as a postmodern case for religion, for it takes as given a general lack of foundations. At the same time, however, we are only a short step away here from the fundamentalist claim that secular humanism is “just another religion” and that Darwin’s account of creation deserves no pedagogical preference over the Bible’s.

As it happens, Taylor is not friendly to fundamentalism. He has no time for Hell or for the wrath of God. His God is a God of love, he says, not a “cruel puppet-master.” When the subject of suffering arises, he appears to suffer too, in sympathy. But like his God he is evasively silent on the whys and wherefores of the suffering. Taylor seems a bit wrathful himself that the fundamentalists, by accepting a “normal” sense of causation, affirm the materialist concept of the miracle as “a kind of punctual hole blown in the regular order of things from outside.” He speaks strongly against churches that identify faith with codes of sexual behavior. What he calls “code-fixation” is one parallel between his counter-Enlightenment narrative and that of Foucault. For Taylor, Foucault’s “disciplinary society” stands as a useful description of the secular present—a present that the fundamentalists unwittingly accept too much of when they embrace a “fetishism of rules and norms,” especially sexual ones.

Though Taylor has no desire to defend fundamentalism, much of what he dislikes about fundamentalism also applies more generally to Christianity. In his view, it too has moved on from that “enchanted world, full of spirits and forces” about which he seems to feel powerfully nostalgic. Is Christianity a refuge of enchantment, then, or is it an agent of disenchantment? In one mood, Taylor posits the functional equivalence of the secular and the religious. In another, more driven by his nostalgia for the enchanted world, he emphasizes on the contrary a dramatic historical rupture between them—a rupture that is also within religion, separating the enchanted world from Christianity itself. Here he appears to be in no doubt that secularism has indeed disenchanted the world and that this is a very bad thing. We have not only lost the spirits, which required some sense of a “higher” reality, but we have also lost our full experience of our bodies. Now we take “a distance from our powerful emotions and our bodily functions.” Our religions are no longer really religions. We are barely capable of imagining how much else we may have lost.

So once upon a time there was an enchanted world and now it’s gone. Or is it? At considerable risk of inconsistency, Taylor also insinuates that perhaps after all there is some chance of getting it back. It is his dogged optimism about this retrieval that allows this argument to be thought of as also, in its way, postmodern. He describes disenchantment as “an end to porousness in relation to the world of spirits.” Instead of being properly porous, we are now pathologically “buffered.” The porous/buffered terminology suggests that the world of spirits is there to be seen; the ability to see the spirits depends solely on shedding our buffers, cleansing our vision or our epidermis, opening ourselves up body and mind to the higher as well as the lower world. (Sin, as Taylor describes it, is a closing oneself off to God; accepting the immanent frame means accepting a “closed world structure.” Closure is one of his most frequent and most ideologically loaded diagnoses. Who doesn’t want to be more open, more porous?) Here Taylor of course assumes a proposition—the real existence of spirits—that reasonable people might doubt and that therefore ought really to be supported by some sort of argument. The only excuse I can imagine, if it counts as an excuse, is that Taylor is also assuming that the widespread belief in spirits can be equated with the existence of those spirits- in other words, that he is giving decisive ontological weight to human subjectivity.

This is something he does a lot. The problem with his characteristic use of “we” and “our” is the authority it bestows on particular and peculiar conclusions based on how “we” supposedly feel. In support of “the idea that nature has something to say to us,” Taylor offers those “feelings of renewal” that sometimes come to people in countryside or forest. Feelings count as hard evidence. “I cannot see the ‘demand for religion’ just disappearing like that.” He says this as if once the demand for religion has been expressed, the ultimate satisfaction of that demand is somehow obligatory and guaranteed. I feel that God exists, therefore he does. We desire eternal life, and therefore eternal life must be real. Why not conclude on the contrary that because we fear endless emptiness after death, endless emptiness must be real? An overdeveloped respect for the subjectivity or culture of others, as in official projects of multicultural diversity, is arguably what got us into this mess in the first place.

Taylor’s respect for human feeling sometimes seems almost pathological. Yet there are all sorts of feelings that don’t get respected nearly enough. Taylor’s portrait of secular modernity is full of stale Brave New World-style clichés about Hugh Hefner, brightly-lit supermarkets, and the triumph of the therapeutic. For him, secularists are utopians and proto-fascists by nature. Commitment to democracy commits us to “a new and perfect code,” to seeking an inhuman “invulnerability.” (The latter point seems empirically wrong—no one knows vulnerability like a secularist obliged to do without divine protection of any kind. But it is rhetorically clever, as it quietly responds to the charge that religion is childish with the suggestion—however unfounded—that it’s the secularists who childishly think they are invulnerable.) We hear repeatedly that life in today’s secular world is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness. Taylor does not bother to compare this putative malaise with the various sorts of sickness, figurative and literal, that people suffered through in those idealized medieval parishes. His notion of what was felt then is tendentious in the extreme, and his notion of what gets felt now on an ordinary day by ordinary people seems crabbed, narrow, and very outdated. One does not have to take a rosy Thomas Friedman-like view of contemporary capitalism to feel that Taylor has not done enough fieldwork among women or young people—that he is willfully blind to the various forms of good feeling that are both secular and at least as characteristic of our contradictory modernity as “malaise.”

Taylor’s impulse to respect the truth of (selected) subjectivities is somewhat balanced by a counter-impulse to think about secularism sociologically. In fact, his sociology again leads him away from the official moral of his story, which is that reference to the transcendent and the supernatural is now difficult but possible—that as earlier forms of religion have been rendered “virtually unsustainable,” “new forms have sprung up.” In reply to the question “what stopped people (that is, almost everybody) from being able to adopt stances of unbelief in 1500?” he gives two explanations. The first is a surprisingly materialistic reading of enchantment. The world before 1500 was filled with spirits, both demonic and benign. And in “a cosmos of spirits and forces, some of them evil and destructive, one had to hold on to whatever was conceived to be the mainstay of good power, our bulwark against evil.” You needed the good spirits in order to protect you against the bad ones. The second answer centers on the social unit of the rural parish. In that period, he says, “belief was so interwoven with social life that one was inconceivable without the other.” Both explanations hint strongly that today it may be belief, not unbelief, that is inconceivable. If there is no going back to demons or the rural parish, then there is no going back to belief either. Whatever forms spring up, they cannot escape the immanent frame.

The immanent frame is what Taylor calls a “social imaginary”: a set of normative notions and images that go deeper than mere “intellectual schemes” and that determine the sorts of expectations that are and aren’t possible. It does not specify beliefs, but sets the conditions of belief. Crucially, it determines how much harder it is to sustain your faith once your faith comes to be seen as merely one option among others. But how determining you think a social imaginary is will depend on what part of the phrase you accent. If you accent the social, you get the suggestion that for better or worse secularism is not going away. If you accent the imaginary, everything seems open to being re-imagined differently, and you can suddenly find yourself in doubt as to whether this age is indeed secular at all. To say that everything is imagination is to say that everything is belief. But if that’s what Taylor is arguing, then the disenchantment story collapses, and with it the immanent frame itself. We believe now, he would be saying, and we have always believed. Belief is not impossible; on the contrary, it’s all there is.

Perverse as the strategy may seem, it makes a certain sense, then, for Taylor to mobilize Nietzsche in his attempt to cut secularism down to size. When Nietzsche declared that God was dead, he went on to add, at some risk of paradox, that God had in fact gone into hiding and now had to be smoked out of various secular terms, from morals and nature to man and even grammar. The large question that Nietzscheans like Foucault have never been very good at facing is whether these God-terms are really God-equivalents. For if the secularization of theological concepts results in nothing but more theology, if God-terms are functional point-for-point equivalents for God, then God is effectively indestructible. And if so, then, as I suggest above, secularization has in fact never happened. In that case, everything would indeed be religion, or faith, or belief. Taylor’s narrative flirts with this idea but doesn’t espouse it. “Perhaps there is only the choice between good and bad religion.” If that’s the choice, then after all there would have been no disenchantment. This is a conclusion that Taylor does not recognize, and perhaps cannot recognize. But it pulls visibly on the story he’s telling.

Defenders of secularism cannot be entirely happy with either Taylor’s history of disenchantment or his ahistorical postulate that “everything is still religion,” however gratified they may be to see the contradiction between the two, which undermines Taylor’s claim to a new religiously informed common sense. What then would make them, or us, happier? Is there some way in which A Secular Age might be further secularized—something that in any case the secular always periodically needs? If we wanted to adapt Taylor’s history, we secularists would probably want a narrative that presents the transition from God to God-terms as real and significant, even if God-terms always invite further suspicion. After all, one need not be satisfied with a quasi-theological use of “nature” or “history” or “human rights” in order to feel that these terms mark a significant improvement over the vocabulary of religion as such. Such an improvement story could subtract the nostalgia from Taylor’s tale of disenchantment without thereby becoming another story of secularism-as-subtraction—without refusing, that is, Taylor’s valuable point that secularism too is constituted and limited by history.

In short, we need an unfinished but inspiring story of secularism as improvement over religious belief. Any narrative of improvement will be a hard sell, especially on the left. To claim progress is to sound complacent. No one wants to sound complacent. No, things don’t look that good. One stumbling block is the possible responsibility of secularism for modern violence and injustice. For people like Asad and Ashis Nandy, almost everything that looks like religious violence is in fact the responsibility of the modern secular state. Taylor himself can’t seem to make up his mind. This is one reason why he is often so generous to his opponents. (He honors Derrida for example as a neo-Stoic, absolutely committed to justice even in the face of certain defeat.) The first time the enchanted world comes up, it’s described as “the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces.” Later the demons drop out. I can see why. At times Taylor wants to suggest that religion is deeper than secularism because it recognizes the value of the demonic. Nietzsche can be enlisted in the defense of religion because he saw the positive value of “the irrational, amoral, even violent forces within us” that “cannot simply be condemned or uprooted.” “What we call today sex and violence,” Taylor comments, “could also be ways of connecting to the spirits/gods or the higher world.” At other times he hints that secularism cannot claim superiority over religion because it has not done away with violence, as it should have. Though “the modern secular Revolutions” were “meant to seep away ‘fanaticism,’ religious persecution, and Crusades,” the actual result has been that “sacred killing” reinvents itself (his example is the French Revolution) in a more rational, thorough, and efficient guise. Here Taylor speaks in something like the tones of a liberal, if not precisely a secular liberal. I can imagine an anti-liberal, Zizekian twist on his story that would acknowledge “demonic” violence, but on different, non-religious grounds: aligning the ineluctability of violence with revolutionary agitation for social justice.

So much for what secularists can make of Taylor’s history. There is also reason for us (if you will permit me this “us”) to pause over his “everything is belief” impulse. This impulse leads him to include art, literature, and narrative generally (his own narrative included) under the heading of religion, none of them claiming to be true in the strong sense. It’s in this modest form that religion is likely to appear to secularists as both least threatening (because not claiming authority) and most inescapable (because indistinguishable from other narratives that are provisionally good to think with, narratives we move in and out of). It’s as varieties of literary narrative that religion and secularism look most alike. Religion deserves to be protected absolutely, the political doctrine of secularism goes, as long as it remains private. But it cannot be respected when it claims public authority. So too literature is to be valued as something other than an account of how things really are—as the product of an “as if,” a willing suspension of disbelief, that conveys a distinctive kind of truth as long as it is not held to bear a single, final, definitive truth.

It’s unclear whether this analogy will find any takers. Like A Secular Age, it probably offers too mild and minimal a version of belief to appeal to deeply religious people. It is certainly not going to turn the heads of fundamentalists, who are as convinced of the factuality of their spirit- and demon-filled world view as disenchanted secularists are of the facts (or the uncertainties) of theirs. It may even be too lukewarm for the academic critics of secularism. Asad and fellow anthropologist Saba Mahmood, who are also strong defenders of Islam, will perhaps feel that Taylor has already abandoned too much ground. They are more absolute than he is in rejecting out of hand secularism’s public/private distinction. They accept his point about how religion is subtly restricted when it submits to privatization within a secular frame, but they demand that there should be no restriction whatsoever in its range of activities, no obligatory self-scrutiny, no bending to the larger society. Such anti-secularists are also less likely to concede that religion can perhaps do without the claim to be a single, final, definitive truth. Inconsistent and ultimately unpersuasive as I find Taylor’s argument to be, the contrast here seems to go in his favor.

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

Issue 2 Happiness
The Concept of Experience
March 6, 2006

Miéville’s novels are politically aware, but not in a way that tries to expose fantasy as an ideological confection.

November 22, 2013

The politically correct could only represent a particular viewpoint, and she wanted to represent them all.

June 20, 2011

The intern is to appreciate the opportunity to peek at the file folders into which she slides contracts and correspondence.

More by this Author

July 5, 2007

Among the things I will miss most about Richard Rorty is his hopefulness—an intelligent and self-correcting hopefulness.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book.

January 24, 2011

What would it look like from a comparative perspective that takes colonialism too with proper gravity?

Issue 18 Good News

In India, the peasantry was not disappearing. Archaism remained culturally dominant across the board.